In the Summer of 2014, I agreed to helm a large Mellon Digital Humanities grant awarded to the Claremont Colleges. I had not authored the grant application (this effort was led by my colleague Jacque Wernimont, now at ASU), so first I read it to ascertain that I could shepherd its several categories of support in good faith. More importantly, I needed to evaluate my own comfort level with becoming a face of DH in/for Claremont, again obviously something I decided to take on, but in this case with a more complex back-story (my DH story below), one I am about to unroll here in hopes that it might prove illuminating for those who are in the earlier stages of developing their own (this prosthelytizing, or at least tutoring about DH being obviously one of my main roles as grant administrator, and of DH itself).

I have an open-hearted, big-tent approach to the digital humanities whereby I believe that all humanists are most likely digital, only they don’t know it or don’t want to know it. By this I mean they are probably using digital methods in their teaching, research or publication and/or they are considering the digital, as humanists in their teaching, research or publication, but perhaps they are not fully aware of or interested in the conversations in the newly developing field of DH that applies to said activities.

Given that every humanist is a digital humanist in that they probably email, read and watch things online, use the Internet for their teaching, and/or use digital machines to record, store, write, and publish, what use could such a completely capacious definition serve? As far as the grant is concerned, I’d suggest there are two important outcomes from such openness. And then, as far as my own DH story, I’ll add a few more. Here in Claremont (and across the humanities), a generous DH allows for:

  • new opportunities for inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary connections and collaborations in relation to themes, methods, tools, and outcomes
  • new opportunities for funding, publishing, teaching, and other professional possibilities connected to a growing interest in DH in a time of humanities scarcity
  • new opportunities to learn, refine, and question digital possibilities within our worklife as humanists, and as citizens of academia and the world

My own DH story suggests that such opportunities are stimulating and generative. I came to DH a doubter; or better said, it came to me. In a 2009 blog post entitled, “Digital Humanities,” I wrote:

Tara McPherson asked of us our relation to the term “digital humanities,” and I said I had always thought of myself as a media scholar, artist, and activist but would be pleased to also take on this newer title. However, after spending a few days amongst digital humanists of various home disciplinary stripes, I believe that this inter-disciplinary field holds much in common with earlier practices enabled through the work of scholars who have pressed at the intersections of academia and art and/or activism.

Shortly thereafter, and with McPherson’s help and that of the Vector‘s team at USC (and more Mellon and also NEH funding), I built and then published my born-digital, free, online “video-bookLearning from YouTube (MIT Press, 2011). That publication led to many more “DH” possibilities. I was invited to write, present, interact, and challenge the digital themes and methods raised by that project in that it critically considered and also used digital platforms and tools for teaching, writing, research, and publication. While my more longstanding homes in Media Studies, feminist and queer studies, and activist academia certainly embraced this new project, I found that invigorating conversations about critical or activist Internet studies were as often as not happening around the edges of DH. In fact, I’d suggest that librarians and people in Rhetoric have been at this for much longer than most of us other humanists and I really enjoyed the conversations I was having as a “DH” person with scholars who I was meeting in these fields through DH.

Since then, I’ve engaged in any number of projects I’ll gladly call DH (and other things)—if it will have me—that further situate my teaching, research, and writing at what I hope are the most critical edges of the Internet (often tipping off, I must admit):

  • I taught Learning from YouTube for the fourth time this Spring, and I had hoped to add a practicum where some of my Claremont students would have taken the class with ten inmates at Norco California Rehabilitation Center as part of the larger Prison Education Project (hence the tipping off I spoke of above), thereby challenging our understandings of the power, relevance, and reach of YouTube (and the Internet more broadly) given that some of the students in the class would have been denied access to the web as an integral feature of their punishment. While this was cancelled by the Prison at the last minute, I ended up writing about the relations between social (in)justice and social media twice at a site called Lady Justice. And the class allowed me to refine my on-going thinking about new and social media and feminism.
  • FemTechNet, which I co-facilitated with Anne Balsamo during its inception in 2012, is an international collective of artists, activists, academics, librarians, technologists and students that has conceived and successfully run the DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course), a feminist rethinking of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Class). I have taught the DOCC twice to Claremont students.
  • My current research project is Ev-Ent-Anglement: an experiment in a digital embodied collective feminist media praxis committed to intentionaly recutting the fragments of ourselves otherwise strewn willy-nilly across the Internet.
  • I have taught Visual Research Methods every year at Claremont Graduate University since 2011, where graduate students across several humanities disciplines learn how to “provide a theoretical and historical background for considering three scholarly traditions—from the arts, humanities, and social sciences—that research about and/or with visualization tools (cameras; digital media) and/or visual objects (art, photography, film, video, digital media).” See this blog post where students in the second iteration of the course define DH. That year I added the really useful (and available online for free) anthology Debates in the Digital Humanities (Matthew Gold, ed.). I highly advise it for doubters or newcomers.
  • My class, linked site, and public performance, Feminist Online Spaces, attempts to “build and link principled sites in collaboration.” It builds from my criticism of YouTube (a corporate enterainment platform that we’ve been given for free) to imagine, interrogate, and inhabit other kinds of Internet spaces and communities, especially those built outside the dominant logics of corporate capitalism.
  • And of course, I blog here and elsewhere, and have since 2007: an integral part of my digital life, and one I require of my grad students in VRM (to build and write an “academic blog” among other digital things).

Over the next four years of the DH@CC grant I look forward to hearing the DH Stories of many of you here in Claremont, and those we will meet elsewhere. And I use this blog post as an invitation to hear your Claremont DH stories.

I had to do a little Internet research but it turns out that Fall 2014 was my sixth iteration of Visual Research Methods, taught once a year at CGU since 2010. The course changes as do I, as does the Internet, academia, and the visual. The books I teach have been swapped, versioned, and traded-out as I add new themes: Digital Humanities came in in 2012, Digital Storytelling became the Lambert version a bit after that. The assignments stay the same although their tenor seems linked to each discrete class (see below): a video essay, documentary/ethnographic film, a digital story and academic blog. While I’ve been blogging since 2007, with some review it seems I haven’t blogged about the class every year, although many of the courses are covered (follow links please). But I have continued to learn and share from this class, one that I have always insisted is much more a meta-investigation of academia, the humanities, professionalization, disciplines and their disciplining, academic labor, writing, and the audience and function of our work as it is about learning some “visual methods.” However, the most obvious and lasting change across the past five years are as dynamic as is the Internet, and these come in two parts:

  • humanities graduate students’ exponential growth in their familiarity with and use of digital media linked to web 2.0’s ever easier affordances (only in the beginning did we need a TA and labs for the course to give both access to equipment and tutorials; that’s all easily available now)
  • the exponential decline in the strength of the academic labor market, demanding alt-ac considerations for all and thus the use of said methods not just as a thought or meta-experiment but perhaps as a professional necessity

As I consider the course in context of larger shifts in academia, I’d also posit that each year there are more and more kindred efforts being mounted across the humanities (in large part because of the growth of DH, and also perhaps the video essay and/or video) but also because the increasing digitalization of pedagogy, and the academy more generally has made thinking about and with Internet tools a much more common practice than it was only five years ago. This does make me wonder if the course needs a reboot to bring it more squarely into social media becoming something more akin to Miriam Posner’s course on Selfies, Snapchat and Cyberbullies or Adeline Koh’s class on Digital Writing.

Speaking of DH, it turns out I won’t be teaching the class for the next several years, as I helm the Claremont College’s Mellon DH grant and finish out my tenure at Pitzer’s Munroe Center for Social Inquiry. Because of my reduced teaching load, my colleagues and more pointedly administration at Pitzer have asked that the limited classes I offer go to our undergrads, and this only seems fair. It will be interesting to see if the course continues without me; if there is demand; a teacher; momentum.

One final thought. After reviewing the work of this year’s batch (ever a pleasure, every year a gift), I’d have to say that this posse took the class more personally, privately, and creatively than might have been true for previous years. While this reflection occludes those who did produce highly theoretical or political work this year, and those who did deeply personal work in other years, I do wonder if this is a trend that reflects the technological and professional changes I listed above, or rather is some indication of my own inclinations—steering as I do this eclectic bunch each year—my own hand being soft but also firm and ever changing. This year the course, which always has many feminists, queers, and people of color, was almost entirely dominated by students of said persuasions, and that became a powerful set of lenses through which my own pedagogy and the students’ learning and production were processed. Perhaps there was also something very personal here.

I do hope you will take a look at the many links provided in the paragraph above as well as the videos posted here. They take you to each of this years’ students work. And, if you’ve taken the course in any of its many iterations, I’d love this to be an opportunity to hear you reflect on my observations here, this year’s students’ work, or your own experience in the course, given as it also a good-bye of sorts at least for awhile to VRM.

Finally here’s the best blog roll I could compile with the spotty evidence at hand (can’t seem to find S 2010, F 2010). If I don’t have you here, please do let me know (or if you want to be taken off). I’m hoping it’s true that some of you are still blogging, and I’d love to learn that this is a hold-over or take-away from the course even as the Internet (and you) change and grow. 2011 F 2013 F 2014 2011 F 2014 F 2014 F 2014 F 2014 F 2013 F 2014 F 2013 F 2014 F 2013 2011 S 2013 S 2013 2011 F 2013 S 2013 F 2013 S 2013 2011 F 2013 F 2014 S 2013 F 2014 F 2013 F 2014 2011 F 2014 S 2013 F 2013 S 2013 F 2013 S 2013 S 2013 2011 2011 2011 F 2013 (closed)

Big Data, Small Humanities

November 25, 2014

I attended the Claremont Graduate University’s Big Data, Better World? conference and wanted to make a small comment about the role of the humanities (and Digital Humanities) at that event, and more broadly in academia and ever, perhaps where academia presses against, speaks to, corrects, augments, and influences (and is influenced by) industry.

The point is not really mine–I’m simply reporting here–it was eloquently expressed by all three professors on the Big Data and the Humanities panel, and then reflected and reemphasized through the vision of Jack Dangermond, founder and president of Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), “a pioneer in spatial analysis methods but also one of the most influential people in GIS,” who gave the keynote address “Mapping a Better World.”

Dangermond’s vision is of a planetary nervous system of real-time and past data that is both produced by and available to many, and can be used to make rational decisions about the social, political, environmental, medical and other severe issues facing our world; an opportunity for us to “see and understand” global problems as represented spatially; a “Living Atlas of Information.” Where before we were often gravely effected by the world’s natural (and perhaps other) processes, we will soon be able to effect and perhaps even manage them through rational measurement, mapping, and analysis.

In the question and answer session, Dr. Jacque Wernimont (Arizona State University), one of the humanities professors who had spoken earlier, asked Dangermond what might be the places for worry or critique of this unified system of measuring, compiling, and mapping. Dangermond answered gracefully, without defensiveness, and in complete support of the critical necessity of the humanities’ small in the face of this massive global data stream. He discussed the work of a scientist who studied a square foot of ground for one year and reported his findings through affect, poetry, thick description, and the changing rythyms, moods, and expressions of his own body and that small, intimate space. Just so, Wernimont, Stephen Robertson (George Mason University) in “Collecting Grains of Sand: Big Data and the History of Ordinary Individuals” and Sara Watson (Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University) in “Living with Data: Big Data at Human Scale” emphasized in their contributions not just the small of the humanities (underfunded and diminishing as we may be) but our perennial place as the moral, artistic, affective, and expressive heart of the university, and sometimes our societies. It’s not so much that we think small (although sometimes we do), and more that we are best situated to contribute heart to the soul-less nervous system that technology, corporations, government, and science streams before us.

If the technological future that Dangermond envisions is true, he affirmed as well that the role and responsibilities of the humanities have never been larger: to help shape the questions, applications, and practices for these new tools, to understand where they look and why, as well as to dare to ask what they can’t ever see and will never know.

My Visual Research Methods course has ended, and as ever, my grad students in a range of programs at CGU have done inspiring and inventive work to wrap up this class which pushes traditional Humanities grad students to roll up their sleeves, work with their hands, imagine new audiences and formats, and think about academic labor and standards using new rubrics.

This year, our assigned readings—in Nick Mirzoeff’s Visual Culture Reader, the Debates in the Digital Humanities Reader, and two books about the ongoing and ever-widening Center for Digital Storytelling’s project—linked as they were to an ever more frightening and quickly shifting job market for graduate students, seemed to have helped push this batch of students to do some remarkably innovative digital scholarship, for their final work, thinking about the role of digital storytelling as both a subject and method for scholarly output.

I hope you’ll take a peek at these compelling projects:

  • A “nod to Lambert, but in a very deliberate style that was anti-Lambert (no voice-over, no clean or clearly announced thesis) … also an attempt to have this video be a moment of reflection, a meditation of sorts on friendship,” AIDS, place, and memory (from a PhD student in religion)
  • a digital story, made collaboratively with the maker’s high school students to create an “affective space” much like that previously “carved out through the epistle allowing women, a group previously written out of agency to write/right wrongs through new narratives in much the same way that digital storytelling empowers its creator. Telling my story, working delicately against and with the grain of rhetorical confines and the explosively complex element of my students’ personhoods demanded the kind of suturing of disparate intentions so pleasurable to read in the 18thC epistolary novels” (from a PhD student in English, also a High School English teacher)
  • A video focused upon building “community  around and for people dealing with mental illness, who are working to cope with their symptoms in the midst of the exceptional stress of grad school life. My hope is to create a digital story telling circle that will do just that.” (from a Master’s student in Cultural Studies)
  • An argument for the storytelling power of Instagram (so against the Lambert idea that the Internet produces fragments) (from a Master’s student in Cultural Studies)
  • A consideration of #ANA on YouTube and Instragram as digital stories (by a Master’s student in Cultural Studies)
  • A consideration of #Carol Corps in light of Digital Storytelling (by a Master’s Student in Cultural Studies)
  • A consideration of social media and digital storytelling through three voices of a vegan and animal lover (by a Masters student in Cultural Studies)
  • A work on and as digital storytelling about an artist and a friendship (by a PhD student in English)
  • A digital story that draws the story of YouTube drawing stories (by a PhD student in History)
  • An analysis of how the academy is embracing digital storytelling as research method (by a Master’s student in Cultural Studies)
  • A digital story using “a personal narrative of my memories of my aunt’s illness and how I experienced the confusion of coming to terms with her diagnosis as HIV positive. I believe personal narratives such as this are missing from outreach efforts that have aimed to target the Black community in order to bring awareness of the high rates within the community.” (by a Master’s student in Applied Women’s Studies)

I’ve been teaching a Graduate research methods course for several years now at CGU, Visual Research Methods. But this Spring, I have encountered some surprising findings, ones that are echoed in my undergraduate student’s work as well, where I also assign digital coursework that asks students:

  • to account, reflexively, for the changing affordances of doing their school-work online
  • for staying thoughtful about the Internet itself as part of their topical attention
  • while also creatively expressing their findings in a multi-modal environment and vernacular
  • and then, also of course, clearly expressing findings from their own original research

Now, that’s a mouthful, right? And on first pass, I certainly wouldn’t want to be a student with that as my final assignment rubric! I think all my students (this semester in Visual Research Methods, and also, at Pitzer, in Feminist Dialogues in Technology and Feminist and Queer Documentary) start the semester with fear, agitation, bemusement, uncertainty, and maybe even annoyance about the weird assignments. Understood! And yet …

Somehow, this semester, all my students didn’t just do it and do it well; they got it. And, I said to several of them after the fact, I can’t imagine that’s because they are smarter than students who have taken these classes in previous years and semesters … So what gives?

Two, interrelated things, I think:

  • the tools have actually caught up with the radical teaching aims of multimodal scholar/teachers who wish to push our students to think, write, research and engage critically within and about the digital and the world
  • our students’ literacy with these tools, and also within digital spaces, has already been primed

This is to say, that for the first time, this year, I’d tell my students to leave the classroom and make some little digital something (instead of say, “breaking out” into a discussion group then presenting); and they would and they could. This is something I have also been asking audiences to do for the past two years, and their competency has increased markedly in this short time as well. That’s because in 2013 people are making things all the time, and these things are already smart, self-aware, self-reflexive, multimodal, and interactive.

This semester, my students used the analytical frameworks from class, the histories of movements and ideas, and analyzed both new and old objects for new and old audiences. They debated the politics of Digital Storytelling with some of the movement’s founders. They re-wrote Wikipedia pages. They made mash-ups of feminist theory and memes. They found and analyzed multivoiced and third-person stories (on Twitter and Tumblr) and talked to animals. Some of my students engaged for a semester with another group of undergrads at Bowling Green State University, and with students from grad courses at USC who made amazing digital learning resources for us to use.

Others made mobiles or diagrams for a yet-to-be invented feminist UML, some refined and critiqued possibilities for the feminist body and bra!

They worked on and about podcasts, and stories about Study Abroad and Queer Chicanos. They found new forms for telling the stories of Youth Violence and Violence Against Women. One performed a close textual analysis of Facebook commentary while others made keyword videos on feminism and technology.

Given all their amazing work (and I do hope you’ll hit some of these links; you won’t regret it!), what am I (t)here for, then? If literacy has been gained, and critical practice is already happening online, what is the role of the critical digital pedagogue? Well, most likely neither more nor less than what the role of the professor has always been. Remember when we taught writing? Sure, students arrived with literacy and tools, and the professors’ function was no mere thing: to add history, theory, a framework, a community, evaluation, and caring, careful, critical dialogue.

I am blown away by my students’ skills, and hereby simply provide this shining frame at yet another semester’s end. Well done all!